Can Detroit become a food-sovereign city?
By Nina Ignaczak
Recent years have seen a rise in local food entrepreneurs facilitated by organizations like FoodLab Detroit and Detroit Kitchen Connect and an almost exponential proliferation of urban farms. Almost each week, it seems a new restaurant touting a locally sourced menu sprouts up somewhere in the city. And according to Detroit Ledger, an independent website that tracks grantmaking in the city, millions in grant funding have been awarded to various urban farms and nonprofits.
But Lottie Spady, a local food activist and co-founder of Just Creative, a media organization that works to deconstruct dominant narratives around food and social justice, has a few questions about who exactly is benefitting from all of that growth. “Who is gaining from it?” she asks. “We have all of these new urban farms selling produce to restaurants, but are they benefiting the members of the community most impacted by injustice?”
It’s a question many Detroiters working to build the local food scene struggle with. At the heart of it is the concept of food sovereignty – the ability of marginalized communities to not only have stake in the food system, but to control what they eat and how they eat it.
What is ‘food sovereignty’?
The term “food sovereignty” was first coined in 1996 by La Via Campesina, an international organization devoted to promoting local, sustainable agriculture and opposing corporate agriculture and transnational food companies.
“It means a community has control and autonomy over its production of food,” says southwest Detroit urban farmer, artist, and activist Antonio Rafael. “But we’re totally dependent on monocultural, government-funded agriculture in this country. I don’t think food sovereignty exists in the United States.” Rafael says he began thinking more deeply about food sovereignty when visiting Chiapas, Mexico, where he met indigenous people in the Zapatista movement striving to survive without government support. “The streams there are so polluted, and as Catholics, they want to eat fish on Fridays, but they can’t,” he says. “It’s a sacrifice they make to remain independent.” Rafael looks at food sovereignty as a goal to work toward and not necessarily something that can be accomplished. “Hyperlocally, in my corner of southwest Detroit, I want to get as many people growing their own food as possible,” he says. “But it’s going to start small.”
It comes back to land
Food sovereignty is built into the mission of Keep Growing Detroit, a nonprofit organization that supports Detroit’s urban farmers and gardeners.
“Keep Growing Detroit exists to promote a food sovereign city, where the majority of fruits and vegetables that Detroiters consume are grown within the city limits for Detroiters by Detroiters,” says Ashley Atkinson, the nonprofit’s co-director. But accomplishing that goal, she notes, will require local urban farmers to have access to substantially more land in the city.
“We know that in order to reach a food sovereign city, we’ll need to put about 5,000 acres into active cultivation,” she says. That number is derived from a 2010 study by Michigan State University that evaluated the potential of Detroit to feed itself. “Currently there are just shy of 5,000 acres in park land in the city. So we need as much farmland as park land. It’s about 30 percent of all the current vacant land in the city.” Currently, Atkinson says, urban farming is only about five percent of the way to that goal, based on the number of acres currently in cultivation.
Atkinson would like to see urban agriculture implemented at appropriate scales for surrounding land uses, from larger-scale operations in areas with a glut of vacant land to small neighborhood gardens in residential areas.
“The main challenge right now is that we do not have an environment that facilitates resident-driven transformation of vacant land into places to grow healthy food for people,” she says. “We have huge parts of the city that have been sold or are in development agreements for agricultural-type land uses, but on the flip side people who are everyday residents – who have lived in the city their entire lives for decades, who have been maintaining lots near their homes – are trying to purchase their land outright for agricultural purposes, and they are consistently meeting roadblocks.”
Atkinson would like to see programs implemented to expand on the Detroit Land Bank Authority’s side lot program, with a focus on allowing residents to acquire vacant lots in their neighborhood for cultivation. She also points to urban policies in other cities, such as Chicago’s NeighborSpace program that helps facilitate secure land tenure for urban farmers, as something Detroit might consider.
Race, ethnicity, and food sovereignty
No discussion of food sovereignty can be had without addressing issues of race and ethnicity, according to international food justice activist Dara Cooper. “Understanding sovereignty means we need to understand what’s happened historically,” says Cooper. “Starting with the colonization of land and exploitation of black labor via slavery.” The goal, she says, is to find ways to restore autonomy and power to all historically marginalized group, including African Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans.
Shiloh Maples works with American Indian Health and Family Services in southwest Detroit, serving the Native American community across seven southeastern Michigan counties. She conducted a needs assessment to determine how best to improve the food sovereignty in that community. One of her key findings was a need to secure traditional, culturally appropriate foods that are hard to find at grocery stores, such as heirloom varieties of corn, beans, and squash. “It’s really about people’s right to make decisions regarding their own food,” says Maples.
Anjela Newsom of People’s Kitchen Detroit works with communities to educate children and families on healthy cooking options. She is sensitive to the racial issues surrounding the issue. “As a white person working in the city, I tend not to lead the conversation around food sovereignty. I try to learn and listen,” she says.
Justice, equity, sovereignty
In the local food activist community, some uncertainty exists over whether food sovereignty can be achieved without dismantling the existing food system.
Food Lab Detroit’s Devita Davison notes that in her work, she strives to help people in under-resourced communities to gain a stake in the food system as it exists. And that’s not the same thing as food sovereignty, she says. “I think sovereignty is a realization that there are power structures where some people are given all the control and all the voice and other people aren’t,” says Davison. “The power structures that are set up are very exploitative to folks all along the supply chain. I think sovereignty means we have to tear down those systems and build up a whole new system.”
But Winona Bynum, executive director of the Detroit Food Policy Council, sees both equity and sovereignty as important goals, and not mutually exclusive. She sees a need to both increase the stake of marginalized groups in the existing system, as well as to reshape that system into something new. “We want people to be able to determine what the food system looks like and what food they have access to, as well as equitable access to it,” says Bynum. “People might have a great idea, a great recipe, or a great talent, but often no access to the resources needed to bring that to fruition. There need to be policies to support them.”
Towards building food sovereignty
Cooper points to efforts like the Detroit Black Food Security Network‘s project to initiate a food co-op as one example where a community can start taking power back in the food system. “I think it’s up to individual communities to define to what are the problems they are addressing and what are the solutions,” she says. “But they have to be indigenous solutions.”
Shiloh has identified a suite of ideas to support food sovereignty within the Native American community, including expanding community gardens to provide more access to traditional foods, establishing a commercial kitchen for community use, and initiating a CSA (community-supported agriculture) program that includes both common produce and traditional foods using a sliding pay scale.
Newsom approaches food sovereignty from the standpoint of education. Through People’s Kitchen Detroit, she teaches people how to become more self-sufficient by working with women and children through skill shares such as canning classes, meal cooking sessions, and “Food Justice Fridays” where people can get together, cook, eat and learn. “We might make a large pot of soup and divvy it up, and everybody goes home with something for their family – some jars of soup to either eat right away or freeze,” she says. “It should be the norm that everyone has access to that kind of food and can cook food at home.”
While Bynum doesn’t believe food sovereignty is something that can easily be measured, she points to progress. “I see more people involved,” she says. “More folks have a place at the table, have a food business, have access to the foods that they need that are also culturally appropriate. When you see that, you can measure some of that. Do I have just a gold standard? No. However, I think it’s something to work towards.”
This story is part of a series of solutions-focused features and profiles about the programs and people that are positively impacting the lives of Michigan kids. The series is produced by Michigan Nightlight and is made possible with funding from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. Read the previous story in this series here.
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Nina Ignaczak is a metro-Detroit based freelance writer. Follow her on Twitter @ninaignaczak.
Photos by Marvin Shaouni.